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ASEAN, Brunei Darussalam, Economy

Governing Bandar Seri Begawan in the 21st Century


It has been a few decades since we have achieved independence and our city, Bandar Seri Begawan, has failed to grow itself into a successful regional city. Yes, you may have the typical museum, historic buildings, and iconic monuments or landmarks, but decades of ineffective governance all has led to the city being overrun in terms of economic competitiveness by its other lesser rich neighboring cities, Miri, Kota Kinabalu, and, to a certain extent, Limbang.

If we were to go to the aforementioned cities, we are exposed to a different city development model that is able, time and again, to augment the lack of financial budget to shape their respective cities forward. This city model can be traced by its pro-democratic governance that enables the people to elect whoever is the mayor of the city. The person elected to office are more accountable towards the people’s demands and less willing to act on the whims of how he or she feels, one can argue.

The twin pillars that motivates mayors, among many, are the need to improve the general conditions of the people by intensifying growth and to reduce the unemployment rate of the country. Doing at the city level is perfect for this as it has been argued by the World Bank that cities generate 80% of economic growth. It is at cities too where the greatest number of jobs are generated and concentrated, among many other factors.

The economic dynamism can be fulfilled if there was a serious person who can work, without fear or favor, for the needs and interests of the people. The mayors of Limbang, Miri, and Kota Kinabalu have made it their mandate, backed by the people of their constituencies, to fulfilling the mission to bolster economic growth and job prospects for society. As a result, the laws of the country are always adjusted to meet the challenges of the 21st century, making the conditions that enhance the competitiveness of SMEs a reality.

I interviewed a business person in Limbang and asked her why she would not set up in Brunei. She replied how expensive operating in the country is. Therefore, it would be best for her to just stay put in operating in Limbang. It is understandable because that is the reality of the situation our country is facing. Our strong currency backed by the high real estate prices do dampen our competitiveness.

While it may be easier for the government to use these reasons to uphold existing laws, they serve no purpose but to solidify the government’s complacency of not making the city progress ahead. First, the real reason the real estate prices are high is that we have an outdated land legislation that should have been updated decades ago.

It is embarrassing for our country if foreign investors realize the byzantine process of applying, purchasing, and transferring ownership of lands take ages compared to other countries. This process has made our city somewhat less active, both in its economic and social dynamism, no matter how many lights or decorations you put around the city.

The result is that the few people who got into real estate early on in the 60s, long before the land laws were passed, are able to solidify their control over real estate in the city. Not only do these businesspeople profit at the cost of society, with soaring inflation making rents too high, but some of their grandchildren who subsequently inherit these properties mismanage the apartments and buildings leading to deformed and eye-soring buildings within the city.

The land laws that were meant to protect the poor end up protecting the rich, because the rich are able to protect themselves from upcoming competition under the guise of the law. More competition leads to economic dynamism that is at the heart of successful economic development. At the behest of the people’s interest, the mayors of Limbang, Miri, and Kota Kinabalu made sure that real estate laws were relaxed in order that SMEs and the people’s livelihood can be enhanced over any special interest that want to profit from bygone land laws.

The magical part is that the land laws that Brunei has can easily be updated. We have the human capital and knowledge access for it. With a single directive, we can transform and improve our city position in no time. Yet, after decades of complacency and ignorance, our city has failed time and again to take this step. It may prove to be fatal to the people’s livelihoods if the laws are not updated.

Some changes that should be introduced include reducing the land transfer and land type process to 1 day instead of six unnecessary months. Abolish the “council” that is supposedly responsible to approve these land changes and place trust in the market mechanism to make the right decisions in the aspect of real estate. To do so will enable Brunei to reduce its extensive bureaucracy that has for so long destroyed Brunei’s chances to succeed in economic development and create the jobs needed for our young people.

Bureaucracy has to be eliminated in key aspects of the government that has an impact on the market. Limbang, Miri, Kota Kinabalu have only a fraction of the labor force working for the government, as compared to the bloated civil service of Brunei, yet they are progressing mightily ahead. For one civil service in these cities, they can possibly do the work of “100 Bruneian” civil servants.

It also makes young educated and unemployed people in the country mad knowing the fact that changes are not forthcoming because of the failure to enhance labor productivity and effectiveness in government, despite the large salaries these government servants are being paid for. This can change by introducing the “psychometric tests” on every level of government. The failure to pass it would mean that these civil servants have to be thrown out of work or demoted, while those who pass it shall progress ahead.

If the government is demanding the young people of Brunei to take these psychometric tests today in order to secure a civil servant job, then it would only be fair if those in charge of government today take it too. Make their results public so as to satisfy the demands of young people on the need for transparency on those who govern the country. Are the policy-makers are as effective and smart as they are meant to be to take hold of important positions in government?

If these policy-makers fail, then sack them and give the post to young people. Pay them lesser if the government is in need of saving money, for the young people will not hesitate to accept the post and pay given that they are the hungriest and dynamic of people to contribute in city-development of nation-building. To do so can enhance our labor productivity by miles and it will be safe to say that within five years Brunei will progress mightily ahead too.

On the subject of these cities would invariably pique interest among the young people of Brunei on how they can demand accountability from their government. The failure of the development of the city can be attributed to people hiding behind paperworks and the bureaucratic procedures, thus another main reason why bureaucracy is in need of being eliminated as soon as possible. But what also brings to mind is the need to introduce democracy at the local level in city development.

But what also brings to mind is the need to introduce democracy at the local level in city development. Democracy entails having the people vote whoever wants the position of mayor, or the person who is responsible for governing the city. As of now, we have one called the municipal chairman, but many people express dissatisfaction of the office as being unresponsive to people and SME’s needs, as well as being too bureaucratic and ineffective for a changing global order.

Which is why there needs to be an advocacy of the idea of elections taking place by the people of the city to elect a mayor, whom the people can demand accountability and transparency. The office must, according to the principle of inclusion, be open to all Bruneian citizens or PR regardless of their race, gender, religion, background, or economic position.

He or she must primarily be responsible and accountable for the people who elect the mayor. Having the freedom to elect someone to the position of power in shaping a city have positive consequences. First, the people will be more engaged in city-building, knowing that they have the power to influence in policy-making. Second, the government will be actually doing real jobs, instead of being busy hiding behind paperworks. Finally, a meritorious individual coming from the rank and profile of the Bruneian society will finally emerge to lead the city forward, potentially.

So long as the person is competent, whether he is Chinese or Malay, PR or a citizen, male or female, a Sikh or a Muslim, rich or poor are secondary. Let merit be the principal criteria to which a person should be judged henceforth. Many racists, xenophobic or misogynists may oppose this ideal, but the arch of the universe shall and must bend towards justice and equality.

One prime lesson I learned from my experience studying in London is that I was never discriminated against my religion, race, gender or whatever social dimensions that come into play. What mattered to the Londoners and my classmates were the results I produced.Such ideal must be inculcated into our society as a core principle if we are ever going to rise in a changing global order. The elections of the mayors are one way to promote this principle.

The decades have passed since our independence and BSB still failing to accomplish the goal of being a dynamic hub peeves me. All of the failures have led the Bruneian people down, whether they realise it or not, and this has resulted in us being left behind in terms of economic competitiveness by our neighbouring counterparts, such as KK, Miri, and Limbang. Although city development is not an easy subject to tackle, the need to enhance the importance of city building as a key source of economic growth and job creation must be prioritized.

Solutions to fix the problems at hand include the need to reform the land laws of the country, to eliminate the vast swathes of government bureaucracy, the overhaul and re-formation of the entire civil force through the process of exams given to them, the installation of younger, more competent and hungry individuals in top positions of government, the introduction of elections for mayorship at the city level, and finally the inculcation of meritocracy at the core of government approach in city development are keys to achieving our goals into placing BSB into the top position in the global competitiveness rank in cities.

There is no escape from hard work, and, certainly, there is no escape from the truths that need to be told. Only if we are ever honest and, subsequently, correct ourselves with the stark reality we are facing now can we rapidly rise and survive in a changing global order. This can only be done if we reconfigure a different governance that would enable us to adapt our beloved city, BSB, successfully and mightily in the 21st century.

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